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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Noel Coward


  Lucy Briggs-Owen and Company/ Ph: Johan Persson

The big screen, arguably, wasn't its natural habitat in the first place. Of course, the 1998 award-winning film Shakespeare in Love – co-scripted by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman – helped massively popularize the Bard’s life and times. At heart, though, it was always a love letter to the theatre, rather than to celluloid. 
This rom-com and pretend-historical bio-drama, after all, imagines the young Will Shakespeare falling for a stage-struck noblewoman called Viola, who disguises herself as a boy-player. Thus she joins the impresario Philip Henslowe's farcically frantic troupe at the spit-and-sawdust Rose Theatre, on London's Bankside.
What's delightful about the West End's new adaptation is that it feels closer than the film to a match made in heaven, and not just because the medium is now so suited to the material. Producer Sonia Friedman, in collaboration with Disney, has assembled a class act here, including the world-renowned theatre director Declan Donnellan (of Cheek by Jowl).
Donnellan’s production is beautifully fluid, with playfully imaginative touches. No doubt encouraged by recent transfers from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to Shaftesbury Avenue and Broadway, designer Nick Ormerod frames the action with simple tiered wooden galleries, evoking an Elizabethan theatre. Meanwhile, Donnellan’s cast is comically bustling, in fetching period costume – doublets and farthingales with gorgeous touches of gold embroidery. They fizz with energy as they celebrate and fondly send up the creative tussles, the emotional intensity and the near-miraculous artistic magic of the theatre.
It should be said, I wasn’t instantly bowled over, finding the plethora of famous Shakespearean quotes dropped into the opening scenes slightly tiresome. However, those are tongue-in-cheek, and the parallels drawn between Shakespeare’s supposed cross-dressing sweetheart and his actual plays become cleverly elaborate. 
Initially, strapping Tom Bateman looks as if he might be overly histrionic depicting Will as a struggling artist with writer’s block – ploughing his fingers through his shaggy, dark curls. However, he is soon saved by Lee Hall’s stage adaptation, which amusingly expands the role of Christopher Marlowe. With a nod to both Romeo and Juliet and Cyrano de Bergerac, David Oakes’ wry, cool Marlowe stands concealed under a balcony, helping Bateman’s Shakespeare wax lyrical to woo Viola. 
Lucy Briggs-Owen is, crucially, exquisite in that role. A fast-rising star who speaks verse beautifully – having been nurtured by the RSC – she steers a fine line between playing for laughs and exuding ardent yearning. She is charming, radiant and more spirited than Gwyneth Paltrow was in the film. Her natural wide-eyed expression also serves the comedy well, as Viola finds herself in startling clinches, rehearsing with theatre laddies who assume she’s a chap. 
Bateman shines too, once smitten, conveying impetuous passion plus sexual chemistry. Droll supporting roles include Paul Chahidi as a hectic Henslowe and Colin Ryan as a ghoulish teenage John Webster, while counter-tenor Charlie Tighe is more hauntingly angelic, singing from the gods accompanied by a live band playing lute-guitars, recorders and loriman pipes. Recommended.
Kate Bassett is a theatre critic for The Times of London. She also writes for


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